The Golden State Killer, or Joseph James DeAngelo Jr, has to be one of the most compelling cases of True Crime I have read about and watched unfold. Spanning four decades this horrific murderer thought he had got away with it… but detectives didn’t give up. DNA profiling and genealogy assisted in the catching of this evil man, 40+ years after his crimes commenced. He committed at least 13 murders, 50 rapes, and 120 burglaries across California between 1974 and 1986. He was pure evil.
Firstly, a little history about his man: he was born on 8 November 1945 in New York. He had 2 sisters, one of which was raped in front of him as a young lad and his sister claimed he was abused by his father growing up. He went to school in California and finally residing in California after a stint in the navy. He had an associate degree in police science and a degree in the criminal justice. He also had lots of police related training that he carried out in Visalia.
He joined the police force after his training in Visalia, where he worked for quite a few years. It chills me to think he worked in the burglary department during that time. In July 1979 he was arrested for shoplifting a hammer and dog repellent. He was fired from the force after this.
Another significant piece of the puzzle is his relationship with Bonnie. They were engaged and high school sweethearts, Bonnie broke it off in 1971 as Joseph became abusive. He threatened her with a gun trying to force her to marry him. In 1973, Joseph did finally marry, a lady called Sharon who was a divorce attorney. They had a family and lived in Citrus Heights, where he was eventually arrested many decades later.
To me this builds a picture of DeAngelo, he experienced trauma as a child and young boy. He learned so much about police science and how the police works, even getting experience as a police officer. He knew the rules. He knew what the police could find out through science. He knew his boundaries. He also had a history of abuse in relationships and he pined over Bonnie – he never got over the fact she dismissed him.
The Visalia Ransacker
The Visalia Ransacker was active in the years from 1974-1976 in the area of Visalia in California. It is believed that DeAngelo committed 120 burglaries over a 20 month period. Some consider this to be his training ground for what would come next in Sacramento. There was not any DNA linking these burglaries to DeAngelo however there was other evidence and DeAngelo was charged with (and pleaded guilty to) the murder of Claude Snelling in 1975.
Most of the time the Ransacker would enter homes, in a particular way, rifling through possessions and scattering women’s underwear around. He would steal a range of low value items, ignoring bank notes and high value items, like he got a thrill out of making people feel uncomfortable in their own homes. He would arrange items in the house too, and empty piggy banks. He would often ransack multiple houses on the same day.
He had a certain style of burglary, which involved a pattern. He would surveil homes before he ransacked. He would always make sure there was multiple routes of escape, incase something went wrong, he would leave a window open and the garage door for example. He would also put warning items in specific places, so if the door opened he would hear a noise – putting plates against doors or cups on door handles. He wore gloves so there was never any finger prints.
Claude Snelling was shot twice after confronting DeAngelo trying to abduct his daughter in the early hours of September 11, 1975. Snelling had chased off a prowler earlier in the year of 1975 who was lurking around his daughters window. Snelling was awoken by strange noises in his home around 2am, DeAngelo wore a ski mask. He caught DeAngelo attempting to kidnap his daughter who had been threatened with her life if she did not comply.
After this horrific event police set up night time surveillance around the houses that had been ransacked, but it continued. There was a close call on the night of December 12, 1975, when a masked man entered the garden of a property that had a Detective on stakeout in the garage. The detective attempted to detain the man however he made a loud noise, removed his mask and pretended to surrender (as the detective had fired a warning shot). The suspect jumped over the fence and then shot back at the detective, catching his flashlight in his face. He escaped.
The East Area Rapist
The East Area Rapist was active from 1976 – 1979 in the Sacramento area. There was significant change from the burglaries in Visalia as the crimes escalated to rape. He would surveil the homes of young, single, women that lived in single story homes. He would prowl around their homes nights before the attack and sometimes burglarise their homes in a separate crime before the rape. It is thought he did this to unload guns, unlock windows and plant items to use a ligatures. He was methodical and this was definitely not random attacks.
After a time he changed his preference to attacking couples, his crimes were escalating. He would get the woman to tie up the man, he would blindfold them and put towel in their mouths. He would separate the couples and leave a stack of plates on the man’s back, he would tell him he couldn’t move else he would kill everyone in the house. He would then move the woman into the living room where he would rape her. Sometimes multiple times. It was reported that he shouted “I hate you, Bonnie” during one of the assaults. There was another m.o. that he used: putting a piece of material over the TV, to dim the light.
On February 2, 1978 a couple walking their dog were shot dead by DeAngelo, Brian and Katie Maggiore. It is thought that they were close to the scenes of where DeAngelo was stalking, maybe they saw his face and therefore he didn’t want them to tell anyone. DeAngelo pleaded guilty to killing the couple in 2020.
The Original Nightstalker
The Original Nightstalker was active from 1979 – 1986. Shortly after the final rape in Sacramento, DeAngelo moved to Southern California. There was another escalation where victims were killed. Only the couple in the first attacked survived, all other couples, unfortunately, did not. He killed a further 10 people during this period.
Police were able to link the murders by shoe prints and twine used to tie up victims. He would steal bikes to get out of scenes quicker, they would later be found dumped. Some of the knots used to tie victims were similar to those found on victims of the East Area Rapist.
It was during this time that officers started to believe the offender was a painter or decorator. He used the same techniques he had been gathering from the very first burglary. He stalked the victims houses before the attacks, he learned to take the ligature material with him (so it couldn’t be investigated) and he would call and torment his victims too.
Because local police officers did not collaborate, there was no central system, offences in other jurisdictions were not linked up properly. Things went unnoticed. Puzzles left unsolved.
The Golden State Killer
It was only after 2001 when officers realised that the East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker were the same person because of DNA testing. Michelle McNamara coined him the Golden State Killer.
In 2016 FBI ramped up their investigations; new crime details, new sketches and a reward. It also included a national database to support law enforcement, it was used to handle tips and information. Because officers now had DNA testing they used the DNA collected from the crimes to investigate from a genealogy perspective – is there someone out there who has added their DNA to a family tree website. They found information about the attackers family as far back as his great-great-great-great grandfather dating back to the 1800s. Investigators were about to build about 25 family trees and each tree contained a lot of people. The tree that eventually linked to DeAngelo had over 1,000 people in it.
Over a period of a few months investigators used clues of the case to eliminate people from the family tree, like age and sex. They did this meticulously until there was one branch of the family left. In the Sky Crime documentary you learn a little more about the investigation too, it is definitely worth a watch. They had to keep eliminating siblings and uncles until they had one person left to test, one possible suspect, DeAngelo.
On 18 April 2018 officers took a DNA sample from the door handle of DeAngelo’s car and another sample was taken from a piece of rubbish in the bin. They both matched the DNA collected from crimes of the Golden State Killer. They had to sneak the DNA because if DeAngelo had known they were closing in on him, who knows what he would have done. You can watch this YouTube video of how they caught the GSK.
Arrest and trial
24 April, some 6 days after taking his DNA, DeAngelo was arrested. He was charged with 8 counts of first degree murder with special circumstances (meaning he could have a more strict punishment). He was charged with an additional 4 counts in May 2018. DeAngelo claimed he had a second persona, “Jerry”, who did the killings. Due to the time lapsed on the burglaries and rapes, he could not be charged. He was charged with 13 counts of murder and 13 counts of kidnapping. The case took 6 different counties coming together to put their prosecution across. The case is understood to have cost over $20million and last 10 years. DeAngelo agreed to please guilty to the crimes if the death penalty was taken off the table. He received multiple life sentences, without the possibility of parole on 21 August 2020. I remember watching the case, live, on YouTube. It was horrible seeing the victims and families making their statements and seeing DeAngelo sit there without an ounce of remorse. He is currently in protective custody in a Californian state prison.
There was evidence that the jobs DeAngelo had over the years coincided with the killings, so they could demonstrate he would have been able to have access to the locations. It was truly incredible how they pieced all the jigsaw pieces together.
What shocked me was seeing this frail man in the cameras for the trial, you wouldn’t associate him with doing these crimes. Then some videos went viral showing him in his prison cell doing pull ups and exercises. Also, showed him covering the lights on the TV with a piece of material. This is something he did when raping the women, he covered TV sets with a cloth or material. That spooked me out.
I’ll be gone in the dark
I first learned about this case as Sky Crime released a documentary about Michelle McNamara, a true crime author who was obsessed with finding this killer and unfortunately passed away before he was captured. She helped to coin the name “Golden State Killer” and she spent years trying to find him. I am devastated that she passed away and did not get to see his capture, she spent years putting a case together. She worked closely with Paul Holes and Steve Kramer to catch this evil killer, and after several decades he is finally behind bars.
There is so much to say about this case as there is just so many crimes involved. I have made reference to themes of crimes and not referenced in details the victims as I didn’t think I could do them justice. Instead I would recommend you read about them, watch the documentaries and the books. They truly suffered, communities of people truly suffered and it is truly horrifying.
If you like reading about True Crime then check out my other posts, I get a bit obsessed about investigations, especially ones like this where he wasn’t caught for so long and then the way he was caught was genius! What do you think about the way in which he was found, eventually?